Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The only Bosnian Croat to plead guilty at the Hague tribunal this week heard from survivors of his crimes that they still haunt them, twelve years on.
“I wash my face with tears,” said one in her statement to the court.
Miroslav Bralo, known as “Cicko”, was charged for his role in the notorious Ahmici massacre in central Bosnia. In a village where Muslims and Croats had previously lived together peacefully, some 100 Muslims were killed in a single day in April 1993.
Bralo surrendered to the tribunal at the Hague just days after the indictment against him became public in 2004. He was originally charged with twenty-one counts of breaches of the Geneva conventions and violations of the laws or customs of war.
In discussions with the prosecution, Bralo volunteered information about other crimes he had committed not listed in the original indictment.
Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to an amended indictment, including two counts of grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, two counts of war crimes and three of violations of the laws or customs of war.
Bralo was a member of the Croatian Defence Council’s special force unit known as the “Jokers”, which went from house to house in Ahmici killing civilians as they slept.
He confessed to rape, torture, murder, and using prisoners as human shields.
At a sentencing hearing this week, prosecutor Mark Harmon called for a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison for Bralo, describing him a “willing and enthusiastic participant” in the killing and expulsion of Muslims in Ahmici.
Harmon called Bralo a “useful tool” to others, a man who “enthusiastically obeyed his masters” and must be judged by his deeds.
Harmon showed pictures of several murder victims, pointing out that of the 21 Bralo himself killed, almost half were minors aged between seven and 17. He also urged the court to consider the suffering endured by one woman Bralo tortured and repeatedly raped.
Harmon also read victim impact statements out, saying that the court should consider the survivors who were “condemned to life sentences of pain and sorrow”.
One unidentified woman whose husband was killed by Bralo said that if she wrote everything she could about Ahmici the book would be thicker than any other in the world. “If a stone could read, it would cry,” she said.
Harmon referred to another that described a journey of despair, “a journey that none of us can imagine. A journey that none of us would want to take”.
Bralo himself hardly raised his head during the hearing, sitting hunched over his table.
However, the prosecutor also put forward three mitigating factors it said the court should take into account for the sentencing.
The first was Bralo’s voluntary surrender. The second was his guilty plea before the trial started which spared the witnesses the pain of testifying and saved tribunal resources. The third was Bralo’s remorse. “I am convinced he is truly remorseful,” said Harmon.
Defence counsel Jonathan Cooper also argued that Bralo’s sentence should be consistent with others given to those found guilty of similar crimes and should take into account that Bralo was a low-ranking soldier.
Cooper also outlined the circumstances leading up to his client’s participation in the Ahmici massacre.
Just prior to the attack, Bralo was in jail after retaliating for an attack on his home.
He was imprisoned in Kanok jail from February to March 1993, when the airwaves were being filled with “poisonous” propaganda, said the lawyer. Bralo was released from jail specifically to take part in the attack, and at all times was working under direct orders.
In April and May, Cooper said, Bralo was being “used as a weapon of war”.
The lawyer described how Bralo has been trying to rehabilitate himself since 1996, and even tried to surrender to UN forces in 1997, confessing his role in the murders in Ahmici and saying he could no longer live with his conscience. The UN forces freed him despite his wish to be arrested.
Bralo also gave papers to the UN forces, which were later helpful to the tribunal. Bralo has offered to repeat his testimony in the future. And he is working with the UN mine action centre in Bosnia to clear mines from areas where he had worked as part of a mine-placement unit.
Cooper read out portions of his client’s statement to the court.
“My apology should go further,” Bralo wrote. “It should be as big as the globe.
“I encourage anyone who can do to talk to their neighbours, to come forward and talk to the court, and start to find peace.”
Presiding Judge Iain Bonomy said the sentence would be given as soon as possible.
Adrienne N Kitchen is an intern at the IWPR.
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